Thursday, December 6, 2018

My Wife Made Me Write This

My wife, Robin, suggested writing this blog post. She "said" it was good to show the non-writing side of my life.

I tried to explain it will simply ruin the tiny residue of coolness I still retained—that quasi-aura of awe that being an author grants an individual so long as a lot is left to the imagination. Robin probably feels that since I failed to do dishes yesterday, I’m getting too full of myself, and so maybe this was her way to deflate my ego and ruin my rep. Personally I think the fact that  I’m a fantasy/science fiction novelist who played the original ziplock-bagged edition of Dungeons and Dragons back in the seventies, (great way to meet girls, let me tell you); or that at age fifty-seven, I still find time to play Early Access computer games on Steam; or that I created a replica of my fictional fortress, Alon Rhist, in Minecraft would be enough. Apparently not.

Now that I’m starting to regain a modicum of respectability due to waning interest in the oversaturated superhero market, living in a rustic-chic cabin in the mountains, and having visited Europe twice, she wants me to throw all that away and expose another geeky interest of mine. Either she’s telling the truth, or just wants to ensure I never have the opportunity to run off with a hot, forty-nine-year-old babe who’s into older guys that make up stories about elves. I’m thinking that might be it, but I’ll let you be the judge.

Here goes: I’ve started birding.

For those of you who have no idea what that means, it means you’re normal. I think most birders recognize they are different. You know, the way those of us who desperately needed to know the names of all five wizards in Middle-Earth—including the two “blue” Istari—are “different”. And just like a person who might not want to interchange Trekkies and Trekkers in front of a Star Trek fan, you want to know there is a difference between Birdwatching and Birding.

Birdwatching means you like to watch birds, like some ornithologist’s creepy voyeur obsession. Birding is Pokémon Go for old people. Well, older people. I suppose you don’t have to be old to enjoy birding. In fact, it’s a huge benefit to be young and in good physical shape. Given, however, the primary activity involves walking slowly and quietly outdoors, generally in natural places like forests and fields, or just sitting for hours listening and waiting, it tends to attract the AED people (Attention Excess Disorder), or “older people”. Oh, and Boy Scouts. They can get a merit badge for being able to identify twenty birds.

I started this bizarre obsession on Thanksgiving—technically the day after. You see, the family was looking for a good movie to watch. Given my afore mentioned lackluster attraction to superhero flicks we watched an old Steve Martin, Jack Black, Owen Wilson film called The Big Year, which is based off a novel by Mark Obamack. Both are the mostly true story of the 1998 Big Year Birding contest.

Let me tell you about what a Big Year is cause this is where things get a little weird—in a cool, nostalgic throwback way—but weird nonetheless.

The Big Year is a contest where individuals try to see more bird species in the US and Canada than anyone else. People go to great lengths spending tens of thousands of dollars, sacrifice a significant amount of a year's time, oftentimes suffer terrible discomfort, and sometimes abandoning marriages to achieve victory. What do they win? Nothing. Who checks to makes sure people really see what they claim they saw? Nobody. The whole thing is on the honor system and there is no prize other than your name at the top of a list published in a magazine no one reads. It’s absolutely Downton Abbey British.

It’s also a good movie. After watching it, the next morning, a bird landed on the railing of my deck next to a feeder my wife had me put up a couple weeks before. My daughter spotted it and got my old National Geographic Pocket Bird Identifier out and concluded it was a Dark-Eyed Junco. I got my DSLR camera, snapped on the 72-200mm lens (the one I recently bought to take on the Rhine Cruise that previous summer) and let her shoot the bird. 

That’s how it started.

Later that day, as a wholesome family outing, I took everyone across the street to the fire road that leads up the mountains of Shenandoah National Park. We brought the camera and binoculars. This was our first Birding trip. We saw one lousy bird. Robin thought it was a nice way to get exercise; my son just liked walking in the woods; Sarah and I eyed each other realizing the truth: we were now rivals in a serous competition.

We made a deal. One year. Identifiable photographs only. The most bird species wins. Deadline: next Thanksgiving. Bring your A-game, and your photos or settle for turkey.


Sarah bought her first telephoto lens. I shopped to upgrade mine, but couldn’t justify $2000 for sharper pics. I’m not that competitive—not yet. I did get the eBird and Audubon apps that shows hot spots to help me locate hard targets. And the wonderful Merlin app that will decode a photo and help me identify what bird I just saw. Real birders don’t require photos, but then read birders know which birds are which. They just use binoculars and jot the names in notebooks they call “Bird Journals”.

In the old days, before handheld cameras with rifle-length zoom lenses, birders used actual guns to kill birds. It was the only way to be sure what they spotted. John James Audubon, the famed American ornithologist, naturalist, and painter, made a habit of killing hundreds of birds, keeping a handful of the best to do his paintings from. He used wire to pose them and revolutionized wildlife art with his “life-like” poses. But starting in 1900, some crazy folks who were part of the Audubon Society (Audubon in name only as it was formed by George Bird Grinnell who sought to protect birds from the mass slaughter occurring at the time—and who had clearly never met Audubon, who died decades earlier) thought it might be fun to count instead of kill the birds.

So began the first CBC or Christmas Bird Count. After that, a guy named Roger Troy Peterson made one of the first Field Guides so people could identify birds by just looking. In the process, he performed a Big Year in 1953 by seeing 572 species. In 1973 Ken Kaufman, a poor, eighteen-year-old kid got 666 by hitchhiking the US and living on Little Friskies Cat food mixed with vegetable soup. Poor Ken lost that year to Floyd Murdock who got 669, but it only cost Ken $1000. James Vardaman spent over $44,000 in 1979 to spot 699. Ken wrote a Field Guide of his own.

Then in 1998 Sandy Komito, Al Levantin, and Greg Miller competed for the Big Year. This is what the movie and book are based on. I won’t tell you who won or what their scores were. It goes against my ethics and livelihood to give out spoilers.

Not being bird experts, my daughter and I needed photos to ID perps, or peeps, as the case may be. So we take photos. After Thanksgiving, we returned to our respective homes and began the hunt. Living in the mountains, I thought I had the advantage, and quickly added Song Sparrow, Golden Crowned Kinglet, Mockingbird, Red-Bellied Woodpecker, Blue Jay, Cooper's Hawk, Northern Cardinal, Turkey Vulture, Male/Female Mallard, White-Breasted Nuthatch, Rock Pigeon, European Starling, Northern Bluebird, Great Blue Heron, Downy Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, Raven, Bufflehead Duck, Killdeer, House Sparrow, Canadian Geese, Kestrel, and Morning Dove to my list.  Here's some of the pictures.

To my dismay, I learned Washington DC (near where my daughter lives), with its proximity to the Potomac, drew a lot of birds. After one week she was ahead by three. One was a Bald Eagle. Doh!

One of the primary differences between Birdwatching and Birding is that Birders hunt. Birdwatchers sit and enjoy witnessing birds visit their feeders. Birders travel. While I drove to local lakes to hunt birds, I really became a genuine Birder when I dragged my wife on a two-hour drive to the Occoquan Bay Wildlife Refuge to spend the day shooting birds. The weather was bad for shooting—dark and overcast, but at least it wasn’t raining and it wasn’t freezing. Best of all I bagged fourteen birds that day including a pair of eagles. 

I also met my first real Birder. I had heard about them. Rumor held they are quiet, shy but exceptionally friendly and helpful, and always eager to talk about birds. The fella I met was Scott Sarratt, who frequents the refuge and was a font of birding tips and wisdom. At that moment, birding became a massive multi-player game.

I now have a birding journal, a new strap for my binoculars, Ken Kaufman’s Field Guild, and the National Geographic’s hardcover Complete Birds of North America. My count is presently a cool forty confirmed bird species. Forty in eleven days is a decent start for a novice, pretty good even.

The real question: What is Sarah’s count?

She’s been quiet about it, which has me worried. I think she’d booked a charter flight to the Aleutian Isle of Attu for a three-week birding hunt. I have no proof, but I wouldn’t put it past her.

So there goes my reputation as the suave, sophisticated author. Maybe I should insist Robin write a blog on how she’s become a bread-baking fanatic and is desperately trying to extend the life of our perennial plants by taking clippings and Frankeinseining them.

Plants, birds, bread…yeah, we’re definitely AED people.